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Writing a novel isn’t easy. In fact, getting as little as a first draft done can take years. In these past few months, I’ve been looking for a solution to get my writing back on track, and I think I might’ve found it.
Written by Los Angeles writer Todd Klick, Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know, provides a really fresh perspective on the Hollywood screenplay. Klick breaks down dozens of feature films into minute-by-minute segments, identifying pivots and twists that occur at particular times. But the book argues that each minute in most movies is essentially the same, and that they mostly follow a specific formula to bring the plot forward.
Klick breaks down movies like Jaws, Pulp Fiction, Skyfall from minute 1 to minute 120. It’s not that they’re all exactly the same; rather, their plots operate using the same basic movements, from the opening action to the climax.
I won’t go over every part of the book, but I want to show how you can use the movements in this book to inform your draft and keep your story together.
So how do all these movies work?
A big problem I always have with my writing is the opener. What Klick suggests is that you should build the tension immediately. You’ll have plenty of time to develop your character over two hundred pages, but you need to keep your audience excited. So the first ten minutes (or say, ten pages) should be all about ratcheting up the tension, introducing the lead character, and putting them at the center of the action. Klick refers to the opening of Skyfall (a chase scene) and Juno (an awkward lovemaking scene) as two examples of how you can introduce the plotting and character while ramping up the anticipation.
Before minute 20, this is what you should have established: How your main character/s operates under duress; what side of good and evil they’re on; and finally, what type of tension will drive the book. If it’s an action novel, you might start with a car chase. If it’s a literary work, you could begin with your faced with an immediate internal crisis.
The Rising Action
So 20 minutes/pages in, you’ve already established your main character and one or two of the other characters. But now, the rising action deals with the larger stakes at play in the piece. In science fiction novels, this is where we learn about how we got to where we were.
At minute 21, Klick argues that most movies will introduce “the great affect”, the factor that will greatly alter the future of the hero, for better or for worse. So spend the first twenty parts of your book establishing the setting, the characters, the speed of the action. Then twenty pages in, you can establish the big conflict, be it an exterior or interior one.
The book cites Raiders of the Lost Ark as the prime example for this beat. At 21 minutes, Indiana Jones is asked to find the ark, which not only drives the plot but changes Indy’s life indefinitely. Think of it this way–Once the hero overcomes whatever conflicts presented by the pursuit of the ark, then the story will be done. In a sense, Your audience needs to know when the endgame is.
The next twenty minutes is where your hero prepares for the major journey, and the other stakes in the story get established. Here is where you can raise the stakes however highly you want. In the Matrix, this twenty minutes is where Neo learns about the Matrix. Explore the world. Meet the family. If you want to get real corny, depict a scene with the love interest.
So the rising action gets the story moving. The hero is struggling, a little, but overall they’re moving in the right direction. Their good qualities reward them, even as the stakes go up. Neo learns the ropes of the Matrix. But then 40 minutes in, just as the hero feels like everything will be easy for them, the real challenge of the story, or the “thorny rose”, as Klick calls it, will arrive and the hero will have no choice but to face it, however maliciously it is.
Klick refers to Jaws, where we learn that the shark is still out there while Brody, one the main characters, is eating dinner. Consider this moment a calm before the storm. By now, you should have established enough conflict or tension to keep the story afloat.
Another example is when Bond comes face to face with Javier Bardem in Skyfall. Bond is trapped and must confront the villain; he can’t conceal himself behind his gun. You can also think of this moment as a way to overcome obstacles in your book. You have a great scene but you can’t seem to go forward. Think of something that’ll be too much for your hero, and this whole segment will lead to that.
For these 20 minutes/pages, your hero will begin their descent into the crisis. Not only will they get deeper into uncharted territory, but they’ll soon be entering the Lions’ Den. in these twenty beats, the enemy starts taking jabs at the hero.
At the hour mark or so, the story will begin its descent into the underworld. The crisis is necessary for telling your story, because it puts your hero through the wringer. It gets them to work to their limit. At the 60-minute mark, Klick identifies what he calls “the shocker”, the moment that takes the breath away from the viewer. This moment will likely put us at rock bottom, and from here on in, the hero will have to claw their way back.
The most famous example for the is when Tarkin blows up Alderaan at the hour mark in Star Wars. So what do you do in these next twenty pages/minutes?
- At minute 63, an ally of the hero might get exploited by the villain.
- At minute seventy, there’s often a pre-journey, or a scene before the longer, climactic ending. This side-journey can be done at a low-point during your book or screenplay. If the hero is in prison, this might be where they figure out the ropes of the place. Or if they’ve just been dumped by their love interest, this might be where the hero journeys to meet a person who’ll give them advice.
- For minutes 73-77, a bad guy or a secondary villain will step up the aggression, and at 76 or 77 there is either the threat of death or death itself.
Before the Climax
But at minute 80, the hero gets surprised by something. while there may have been a major event twenty minutes ago, this moment is strictly for the hero or the main subject. In this case, it’s often the beginning of the hero’s journey towards the end. They might receive the call they’ve been waiting for or, like in Jaws, the shark might literally jump out of the water.
From here, the main character moves closer and closer to the villain’s domain, or to the heart of the conflict. For the next twenty minutes/pages, much of the plot will be indirectly solved. At minute 85, the villain (or the heel) will often reveal some sort of weakness. If it’s a cheesy action movie, the love interest and the hero will get close to each other in minutes 93-94. But at the same time, the villain will also show more and more strength, even as their armor is starting to crack.
Right at moment 100, we either a decisive moment, which will indefinitely alter the story. Either we get a moment of affection from a peer/former enemy, or we also get a big moment from the hero, who will either confront the villain or prepare for their attack.
The finale is just that. It’s the final showdown. And if you think this is a moment made exclusively for action movies, think again. In Crime and Punishment, for example, the final part is still a combative back and forth between escape or renunciation.
In the finale, we see the hero going deeper and deeper into fighting, either suffering more for victory or giving up as much as they can to redeem themselves. So you can have more freedom with your ending, but unless there’s a good reason for you to do so, you should keep it short. These last 20 beats are for keeping the tension high.
Beats 101-110 are meant for defeating the villain/overcoming the conflict once and for all (beat 107 is pretty funny: the hero will often do something “bad” as an act of justice against the villain. The final ten are not always the same, but usually, the main villain will return in some form and surprise the passive hero. But we will need to remember that the hero is who they are, and they have the power to win anyway. Beat 120, the final one, is where it all explodes. This is the last piece of action you need. How/why does the hero overcome it. Why did they need to die, or admit what they did?
This is just a basic outline of the book, but I recommend buying it to look through the whole thing. Even if you disagree with the perspective, it will open to your eyes to many of the things you may have forgotten to put in your first draft.